“We are going to learn a century from now we're biologically determined.”

Robert Sapolsky Interview REVIEW

Robert Sapolsky argues in this interview that humans have absolutely no free will. “Show me the neuron. Show me the neuron …” he insists. “There is no causeless cause. Every biological event has a history.” He notes that modern science has demonstrated that we have a good deal less free will than we used to think we had. He draws from this the conclusion that eventually we will see that we had none. He uses the example of schizophrenia which at one time was something blamed on “bad mothering.” We now know that the children of perfect mothers could have schizophrenia. Generally, he believes that we will all be relieved to discover, once we discover it, that it is no longer appropriate to praise ourselves or blame ourselves. “Things we call free will now,” he says, “we are going to learn a century from now were biologically determined.”

These assertions lead him to conclusions that can be somewhat startling.

He believes that it is a tragedy that we treat people who make poor decisions as though they were responsible. Mind you, he would put people who are likely to injure others in some sort of confinement until they were “better” and not likely to harm others, but he would not punish them as though they were the originators of their crimes. When asked if this would be good for society, he confesses that it is  probably a good thing that he is a neurobiologist and a researcher and not a law enforcement officer and a judge.

“The damage that we did … thinking there was choice! . . .  My God! The way I have treated people in my life thinking they were responsible!”

For Sapolsky, from the age of thirteen, he has been convinced that there is no God, no free will, and no existential purpose for life. He regards the idea of a God that loves us as a myth. He suggests that while religion can be a solution to anxiety, it is religion itself that creates the anxiety. Myths “reduce anxieties that myth invented,” he says.

He thinks of criminals as “cars with broken brakes” and suggests that they be locked in garages where they cannot cause accidents until those brakes are fixed. It is his belief that over time, science will figure out how to fix those brakes. “We are complicated machines,” he argues, “Broken machines, not evil souls.“ And thus, “Every bad person is nothing more or less than the outcome of their biological luck.” And therefore, he concludes that “The entire criminal justice system has to be abolished.”

Admittedly, he confesses towards the end, his beliefs cause him some confusion when he starts to think about how one might implement them in real time. Similarly, he admits that he is as prone to blame others for their misdeeds and praise himself for his successes as anyone. Everything emotionally arousing comes along and I forget my science,” he insists “… but only for thirty seconds.” In other words, he is trying to retrain himself to reflexively respond emotionally and not just intellectually to what he believes is scientific evidence.  

The interviewer asks him if this is not similar to Nazis at Nuremburg defending themselves by saying “I was just following orders.” Sapolsky has an answer to this that satisfies him. “Does [having no free will] mean that I should be allowed to run around and kill people?” he asks. “No.” "You can’t turn 'I was just following orders' to ‘I cannot change.’” “Organisms change,” he insists. “We do not choose to change because we do not choose to do anything. We are changed by circumstance.”

Question for Comment: What do you think? Will the world be a better place when we no longer ask of anyone, “What is wrong with you?” unless our intention is to help them fix the issue? And what of this blog post? Did you choose to read it? Or did circumstances beyond your control make that choice for you?